The Last Pass

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Alex Kershaw
May 18, 2024

The call to action came at last. On 18 May 1944, eighty years ago, 18-year-old Private Bob Sales climbed into a truck with other soldiers from B Company of the 116th Infantry Regiment. Sales and some of his buddies from Lynchburg, Virginia, were then then driven to a containment camp called D-1.

Bob Sales, the only man on his landing craft to survive D Day.

Sales and thousands of others from the 29th Division were sealed off from the outside world, behind barbed wire fencing. Their only way out would be on another truck, bound for Weymouth and a ship that would take them to Omaha Beach.  

I was lucky enough to spend time with Bob before he passed away, aged 89, in 2015. He told me how he had joined the National Guard at 15 by lying about his age and how he fell in love with England during the almost two years he trained there. Of all the D Day veterans I have interviewed, he was by far the most amusing. I vividly remember laughing long and hard as he told me about his final weekend pass to London just before he entered the D-1 containment camp.

Bob Sales in WWII.

Sales visited a London teeming with GIs also looking for one last good time. He didn’t want to die a virgin and he loved to dance, and so he made his way to Covent Garden. He adored the jaunty tempo of big band music, the heady upswing, the feeling he had when he stood up and moved toward a packed dance-floor in his crisp uniform, wearing polished leather shoes and a tie.

Young lovers in London before D Day.

Those English girls thought he looked like a mighty fine officer, a gentleman, not a lowly private, just as it should be for a charming southern boy with a cheeky glint in his eye, whose unit traced back to the Stonewall Jackson brigade, legends of the Civil War.

“Churchill had the Opera House in Covent Garden converted into the biggest dance hall you ever saw in your life,” Sales told me. “They had two bands there – Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s. One would play for a while then the stage would rotate and the other would start up. If you were dancing with a girl you didn’t like, you waltzed over and got another… always two hundred standing waiting to dance. They loved to dance, those English girls. Man, it was as close to heaven as you could get.”

Sales was scheduled to land on Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach in the second wave on D Day.

Hell arrived all too soon. On 6 June 1944, Sales was a radio operator, standing in a landing craft beside B Company’s commanding officer, Captain Ettore Zappacosta.

It was just before 7am when Sales’ craft closed on Dog Green sector of Omaha Beach.  

Zappacosta told Sales to “crawl up on the edge and see what you can see.”

Sales did as he was ordered.

“Captain,” shouted Sales, “there’s something wrong. There are men laying everywhere on the beach!”

Those men belonged to the first wave – A Company, of whom half were slaughtered on D Day. 19 of the dead hailed from Bedford, Virginia, twenty-five miles from where Sales had grown up.    

A British bowman said he was going to drop the ramp to the landing craft.

Zappacosta was the first out. MG-42 bullets riddled him immediately.

Almost every man who followed met the same fate, caught in a relentless crossfire. Sales would have been hit too but he stumbled as he exited, lost his balance, and fell into the water. He was still carrying his radio. He struggled in the water to release it; if he didn’t get the damned thing off his back, he knew he would never fill his lungs with air again.

Sales finally ripped the pack free and surfaced. He was several yards in front of the craft. The machine guns were now enjoying open season. Men were still exiting, still dropping the instant they appeared on the ramp.

“Those German machine guns just ate us up,” remembered Sales.  

A mortar exploded, stunning Sales. Feeling “very groggy”, he grabbed a log that had been part of a beach defense. Sales used the log as cover, pushing it in front of him, his face pressed to the wood. Finally, he got to the beach, where he spotted his boat’s communications sergeant, Dick Wright, who had jumped off after Zappacosta.

Wright was badly wounded and had been washed ashore. When he saw Sales, Wright managed to raise himself up on his elbows but before he could utter a word a sniper shot him.

“It looked like his head exploded,” Sales recalled. “Pieces just fell about in the sand. And I lay there, figuring I’d be next. I buried my head in the sand as far as I could, put my arms over my head, and I just waited. I reckon I lay there thirty minutes.”

“I’d seen a wall, maybe 150 feet away. I thought: “If I can get to that wall, I got a little protection.” I started using dead bodies. I would crawl to one and then I’d move to another. That was the only protection.”

One of more than 900 Americans killed on Omaha Beach on D Day.

Sales saw another Company B man, Private “Mack” Smith, by a cluster of rocks at the base of the wall. Sales crawled over. Smith had been hit three times in the face. An eyeball lay on his cheek. Sales gave him a “morphine jab”, popped the eye back into the socket, and then bandaged him.

The pair stayed at the sea wall, both in shock, for what felt like an eternity. Sales would be taken off the beach that afternoon but would return before nightfall after persuading a doctor to allow him to go back. “There wasn’t a man off my landing craft who lived, except me. Not one.”

Sales fought on through Normandy. “D-Day was the longest day, there’s no doubt about that. But for those who survived it was just one day. I had a hundred and eighty to go. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many men right beside me got killed.”

Every day was worse than the last, a gradual degradation of the mind, body and spirit: “You never got used to combat. Every damn morning, you got up wondering if you were going to live through the day.”

At 4am on 18 November 1944, Sales was severely wounded. He would be hospitalized for eighteen months and lose an eye. “The other one is not the best in the world,” he said, “but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.”

Sales’ actions on 18 November earned him a Silver Star. After the war, he became a successful businessman, working as a land developer and pulp wood dealer. He retired as the proud owner of his own company: the Sales and White Timber Company.

To the day he died, Sales flew the Stars and Stripes at his home in Lynchburg, and he honored his fellow Virginians from the 116th Infantry regiment who sacrificed so very much. Almost a third of the men in his regiment became casualties on D Day. He had listed all the names of his buddies who died on a memorial he erected in his backyard.

The memorial to Sales’ 116th Infantry Regiment above Dog Green Sector on Omaha Beach.

Sales told me he never felt prouder to be an American than on that day in London in spring 1944 when he heard the siren call of swing music and saw the English girls look his way. And what about his time in combat? What did he remember with greatest pride from his six months of fighting to liberate Europe? “I never killed a prisoner,” he told me, deadly serious for once, “and I never sent one back when I thought a man would kill him.”